It was a time when well-worn traditions reigned predominant in American family structures. Men’s role in the family was to work and provide the monetary means for the members of his household, usually portrayed as four children and a wife whose role centered around caring and nurturing the children and supporting the husband and father. It all sounds a bit obscene in the 21st century, but that is truly a brief synopsis of family life in 1959.
Popular movies at the time supported this reality and early television sitcoms consisted of “Leave It to Beaver,” “My Three Sons,” “Eight is Enough” and, hold your chairs, “Father Knows Best.” Mother was never portrayed going off to work out of the household in the morning and was always present when the kids arrived home from school, and dad lumbered in after a hard day of work. She spent the day managing the household and was expected to have dinner ready and waiting for her team.
The children scurried about completing homework before embarking on a play session with the toys of the time. Boys played with toy trucks, cap guns, and games like baseball and American football. Sisters played with baby dolls, toy houses, and replicas of mom’s real kitchen appliances. Most movies and all television offerings were filmed in black and white, perhaps reflecting the grey sameness of that time in America. Given the stark societal contrasts between 1959 and 2023, it is difficult to think that any character of the era past would still be dominating the attention of today’s culture.
Barbie, the doll, first burst onto the scene at the New York City Toy Fair in March of 1959. Defying the traditional baby doll appearances and accepted roles of girls of the era, Barbie blazingly arrived upon the market wearing a black and white bathing suit. Designed by Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel Toy Company, Barbie’s persona was inspired by Handler while she watched her daughter project her dreams and aspirations onto paper dolls. The entrepreneur and visionary realized there was an unfilled niche in the market for a toy that allowed little girls to imagine a future less confined to the social norms of the time.
The first Barbie Doll appearance reflected the influence of the glamorous 1950s and went on to sell more than 300,000 dolls in its first year. Over the next five decades, Barbie portrayed more than 250 career roles and sold more than one billion dolls establishing an unprecedented 50 years of marketing success. But the iconic toy’s popularity and its historically successful marketing journey were not over. Barbie the movie was about to set the doll and the marketing world on a journey destined for new heights.
After a calamitous start in 2009, it was announced in 2021 that the movie Barbie was set to go into production. The screenplay would be written by Greta Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach and would be directed by Greta Gerwig. While many in the entertainment business predicted the movie would never be completed, Gerwig formed a personal relationship with Barbie inventor Ruth Handler to establish the direction of the movie. Gerwig commented, “A Barbie movie is only ever going to be a mother-daughter movie on so many levels because it was Ruth Handler and Barbara—that was the relationship.” Literally no one predicted the impact the movie would have on the Barbie brand or the entertainment industry.
Premiering in theaters beside the highly anticipated movie Oppenheimer, Barbie outperformed all expectations, breaking box office records for the most commercially successful film by a female director and bringing in more than $356 million during opening weekend. Unlike the black and white movies and television attire from Barbie’s 1959 debut, the movie splashed across the screens in a pervasive swash of everything pink. Not only did the movie break established norms of imagery and plot lines but the event was unprecedented in its use of marketing collateral and product tie-ins.
The film launched alongside more than a hundred bright pink branding deals, from Barbie sparkles on Google search results to Barbie-endorsed home insurance to other, “Branded “, products like themed mugs, pool floats, roller skates, carpets, clothing, beauty products and even home fragment candles. Partnerships were formed with brands like Forever 21, Hot Topic, Gap, Crocs, Target, Bloomingdales, and many others who were eager to participate.
The marketing efforts’ success was realized by utilizing unprecedented collaboration between all partners who created “experiential marketing initiatives, like the Malibu Barbie Dreamhouse and Barbie Hotel, providing consumers with unforgettable and exclusive moments.” The brand’s marketing team outperformed in an objective to think out of the box and utilize multiple digital channels and many traditional mediums like billboards, city monuments, and parades to reach a diverse audience and achieve a memorable impact. “Marketers in any industry can use these lessons to create compelling and unforgettable campaigns that resonate with their target audience, foster brand loyalty and ultimately drive business success,” says Michelle Hawley, a senior editor at Simpler Media Group and a reporter for CMSWire and Reworked.
To date, the Barbie movie has achieved record global sales of $1.38 billion, making it the biggest Warner Bros movie ever. It is now the highest-grossing movie of 2023. Not bad for a 64-year-old toy icon.